WASHINGTON - President Bush accused interest groups of exploiting the fight over the next Supreme Court justice to raise money and lashed out at them yesterday for criticizing Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, who conservatives say is too moderate for the court.
Bush, at a news conference in Denmark before arriving in Scotland for a summit of the Group of Eight leading industrialized nations, said he would have "no litmus test" on abortion or gay marriage in choosing a nominee.
"I'll pick people who, one, can do the job, people who are honest, people who are bright, and people who will strictly interpret the Constitution and not use the bench to legislate from," he said. "That's what I campaigned on, and that's what I want to do."
As White House officials, advocacy groups and party strategists prepare for a judicial battle that could start within weeks, Bush tapped former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson, perhaps better known now for his role as a district attorney on the television series Law & Order, to guide the eventual nominee to Senate confirmation, aides said.
Veteran Republican strategist Ed Gillespie, the former national party chairman, is to coordinate the process for the White House, according to people close to the administration, though Bush administration spokesmen declined to confirm that.
Hard words and cash
Bush called on the Senate to ignore "special interest groups, particularly those on the extremes that are trying to exploit this opportunity for ... what they may think is right, but also for their own fund-raising capabilities."
Advocacy groups on the right and the left, many engaged in costly campaigns over Bush's lower-court nominees, are preparing elaborate public-relations and lobbying efforts that could total in the tens of millions of dollars for the battle over the Supreme Court nomination.
They include conservative and liberal groups and business organizations such as the National Association of Manufacturers. Most are exempt from campaign finance limits and disclosure rules.
Bush criticized "money-raising groups" for engaging in heated rhetoric about potential Supreme Court nominees and had harsh words for organizations that have targeted Gonzales in recent days.
"I don't like it when a friend gets criticized," Bush said. "I'm loyal to my friends."
Gonzales under fire
Conservatives have attacked Gonzales, 49, a Bush confidant, as too liberal to be elevated to the high court, focusing on a Texas Supreme Court case in which he voted with the majority against a state law requiring parental consent for minors seeking an abortion.
Liberals fault the former White House counsel for his role in drafting memos in 2002 outlining legal arguments for exempting captured Taliban and al-Qaida fighters from protections of the Geneva Conventions - an action that Democrats say cleared the way for the abuse of detainees.
In Las Vegas, Sen. Harry Reid, the Democratic leader, said Gonzales is "qualified" for the Supreme Court but if nominated, could face obstacles in the Senate.
"I don't know if he'd have an easy way through," Reid told the Associated Press.
Groups looking ahead
The president's comments highlighted the degree to which interest groups on both sides are using the court vacancy to raise money, attract new supporters and energize members - not only for the Supreme Court fight, but for future battles.
The liberal group America Coming Together, which opposed Bush's re-election, sent out e-mail this week urging supporters to look beyond the Supreme Court fight and toward the 2006 and 2008 elections. The message asked recipients to donate money to ACT and invite their friends to join the group. Links were provided to Web sites of other liberal organizations, including People for the American Way, that are leading the charge to oppose a conservative nominee to the Supreme Court.
"As you're signing petitions and getting your friends and family involved in the upcoming fight over the Supreme Court, I urge you to keep a few dates in mind," said the message from Democratic strategist Harold Ickes, which listed election dates through 2008.
Progress for America, a conservative group that supported Bush in the last election, has pledged to raise and spend $18 million on the Supreme Court fight.
Campaign finance specialists said the looming battle over the high court nomination is being used by both sides to raise added cash well in advance of the next election.
"This is an issue that groups on the left and the right are using to motivate their base and to attract new members," said Steve Weiss, an analyst at the Center for Responsive Politics, an independent money-in-politics watchdog group.
"They certainly hope to raise more money than they will need for the Supreme Court fight, and whatever they have left over, they'll invest in the race in 2006," he said. Weiss added that the groups would use the "raised emotions" surrounding the court battle to motivate voters in 2006 and beyond.